Niki Bezzant: There's something in the food, too

Even cooked rice can be bad for your health if your preparation isn't careful enough. Photo / Getty Images
Even cooked rice can be bad for your health if your preparation isn't careful enough. Photo / Getty Images

In a first world country, there are certain things we take for granted. A constant, efficient supply of basic utilities like electricity and water are a given.

We should have no reason to think our water supply could make us sick.

Of course this changed recently for the people of Havelock North, whose water has been contaminated with bugs thought to be campylobacter.

When the water you drink can no longer be trusted, it throws everything into disarray.

But as surprising as this outbreak is, it's not uncommon for people to get sick from water in New Zealand.

Radio New Zealand recently quoted a Ministry for the Environment report that estimated 18,000 cases of waterborne illness in New Zealand every year.

It's also worth reflecting on the many who get sick from food.

We tend not to think about food-borne illness until it happens to us, which it does to 500 Kiwis every day, often from surprising sources.

I'm fastidious with raw chicken - possibly to the point of paranoia - but foods I hadn't thought about can cause food poisoning. I will pay more attention to them from now on.

Cooked rice. According to the Ministry for Primary Industries, rice and other starchy foods such as potato flakes, custard powder and pasta can be infected with Bacillus cereus, which can cause nausea and vomiting. The bacteria grow when these foods have been cooled too slowly, or not correctly refrigerated.

The bugs are not killed if rice is reheated.

MPI advises eating rice straight away, keeping it hot or putting it in the fridge promptly. Sushi rice with its vinegar, salt and sugar, is less prone to Bacillus cereus.

Bean and seed sprouts are also surprisingly risky.

Bacteria can hide inside the seeds and, when sprouted in warm water, can grow and spread pathogens.

MPI says the only completely safe way to eliminate this risk is to thoroughly cook sprouts, which somewhat lessens their appeal in salads and stir-fries.

However, shop-bought sprouts are generally safer because they're grown from suitable seed, under controlled conditions. Just store them according to the instructions and eat them before their use-by date.

Other common foods that could make us sick include tahini (linked with salmonella), deli meats and salads (listeria), rolled roasts and pies (Clostridium perfringens) and shellfish (a range of bacteria, toxins and viruses).

Lest this makes you really paranoid about your food - and downloading MPI's "Meet the Bugs" pamphlet may well do that - it's useful to know we can drastically reduce our risk of getting sick by following some basic food safety practices, essentially: clean; cook; cover and chill.

Storing food appropriately; keeping raw and cooked foods separate and keeping our kitchens, fridges and hands clean should help.

As long as what is coming out of the tap is okay, of course.

Niki Bezzant is editor in chief of Healthy Food Guide

- NZ Herald

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